Friday, May 29, 2009

Apparently We Need More Practice. Or a Nanny.

The other day, my friend and neighbor, Toby, and I decided to take our children to the park. You know, to kick off summer. We were excited about how easy this venture was going to be, especially because Toby's two youngest children were with their grandparents, so we would have four girls total, aged 3 to 9. Piece of cake.

The park is several blocks from our house, and it was a beautiful day. We set out. We'd walked about seven minutes, and Elaine fell down. Hard. There was blood on her knee. "Mamaaaaa! Carry meeeee!" she wailed. OK, I can carry a 30-lb pre-schooler to the park.

Then Lucy, who has inherited my innate grace and dexterity, fell over...what? A blade of grass? An ant? Her own feet? and scraped her knee. "Mom," she whispered, her lip quivering. "Could you maybe carry me?" OK, I cannot carry a 30-lb pre-schooler and a 44-lb kindergartner to the park. Hanging on to my belt loop had to suffice for her (which makes carrying a 30-lb pre-schooler that much easier).

Toby's daughters, Rachel and Anna, scampered ahead, untrammeled by genetic clumsiness. They had fun hiding in the bushes and then hiding behind a fence. Until Rachel fell through the fence and dislodged one of the beams (fence posts? slats? Not sure. City girl here.) Toby, Anna, and I hastily tried to repair the people's fence while Rachel nursed her scraped leg.

Toby offered to carry Elaine the rest of the way, and we finally made it to the park where we hit the fountain immediately for drinks and water splashes for all of our wounds. We made our way toward the playground equipment.

"I have to go to the bathroom," said Rachel.

There are no bathrooms at the park.

Toby said, "Here's my idea. I'll run home with Rachel, let her go to the bathroom, then we'll bring the van back with us."

"You are brilliant," I answered.

Toby came back with the van and bottles of water for all of us. Anna went to the van to get the water.

"It's locked, Mom!" she said. "I need the keys."

When she came back with the water, Toby held out her hand for the keys.

"They're in the van," Anna answered.

And the van was...locked.

After borrowing a wire hanger from someone who lives by the park and managing to hook, not the door lock but the keys that were sitting cozily on the seat, Toby and I solved that crisis.

"Let's keep the wire hanger in the car, just in case this happens again," we said. Clearly, we were not rational at that point.

We walked back to where the girls were happily playing.

"I need..." I started. "Some wine?" finished Toby helpfully. "And a big bar of chocolate," I added.

Hilarity finally set in on our way home (in the comfort of the unlocked van).

"Let's go to the park again SOON!" I suggested. "We just need to remember knee pads, helmets, first aid kits, and strollers."

"Don't forget portable bathrooms, water, chocolate, and wine!" Toby added.

"What are we, AMATEURS?" we laughed. "We've only been at this mothering thing for six and nine years! Did we really think we could just show up at a park, on foot, with our kids?"

So, look for us at a park this summer. And feel free to borrow any of our stuff if you need it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Good Day

Fourteen years ago today, I was standing, outside some closed doors, waiting for this song to play. It is the only acceptable wedding march for the women in our family--my mom informed me of that very early on in my life. She marched down the aisle to it 43 years ago, I marched to it 14 years ago, my sister-in-law marched to it 5 years ago. That's what I tell my girls too.

"You have complete autonomy, well, within reason, over your weddings," I tell them. "With the exception of your wedding march."

"Don't worry, Mom," Lucy says. "We'll use yours and Manga's and Tia's song. We sure won't have any trashy songs when we get married."

The picture above is of us, cutting our cake. I still have good dreams and fond memories of that cake. It had five tiers--One was yellow cake with fudge filling; one was spice with caramel; one was lemon with raspberry; one was chocolate with white chocolate; and one was French vanilla filled with fresh strawberries and bananas.

I don't know what wedding cakes go for now, but at the time we were getting married you paid $2.50 a slice. The lady who did ours baked her cakes the day before the event so they would be fresh. She told us, "I couldn't lay my head down at night and talk to Jesus if I charged more than a dollar a slice for my cakes." She was hired as soon as we met her.

A lot of May 27, 1995, is a big blur for me as I'm sure all weddings are. But I remember that great cake and waiting at the doorway to the church to hear the fanfare of trumpets and organ.

Fourteen years later, I do not like the hairstyle I had that day, I still am crazy about that dress, and I love even more the person I married.

Most of life of course, we focus on the marriage, not the wedding. But on this day each year, I listen to Purcell and get a little bit teary when I hear it--thinking about that beautiful (albeit rainy) May day when Darren and I got married.

I was happy then, and I'm happy now.

I'm also kind of hungry for some cake.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Quote of the Day

Lucy: Mom, would you like to see my formless masterpiece of gymnastics?

Friday, May 22, 2009

It's official--I'm an embarrassment to my children

Tonight we went to the local drive-in for supper to celebrate graduation and summer vacation. On the way home, we had the radio on in the car and the BeeGees "Night Fever" came on. I defy you not to car-sing and car-dance to that song, so of course I was doing so. Even Darren "Mr. Stoic" was whistling along.

Then from the back seat came Lucy's little voice, "Mommmm. Please don't do that."

Hmmmm. Back to kindergarten for her!

Thanks for the Memories

Last night was Lucy's graduation from kindergarten. Before we left for the ceremony, Darren and I gave her a gift--her own Bible with her name stamped on it and a Bible cover. She has been carrying around my childhood Bible that my Grandpa Garner gave me. In it he wrote the words from the book of James, "Be a doer of the Word and not a hearer only." We repeated those words in the inscription for Lucy. She was so happy to have her own Bible (and cute pink cover for it!)

Then we headed out. They held the graduation in a church that is near the school for which I was profoundly thankful since that meant we got comfortable chairs, rather than sitting on bleachers.
Here is Lucy in the courtyard beforehand...

And here she is with the famous Daniel--her best friend from kindergarten and the boy who told me he was going to marry her.

I absolutely love this picture with the ray of light shining down on her. Wait--have you noticed something? These pictures are GOOD! They're not blurry! Ta da! We have a new camera!

Here are the lovely Mrs. Clark, the sweet kindergarten teacher's assistant (those assistants have my undying admiration and respect. They do all sorts of behind-the-scenes work and menial tasks that no one sees) and of course, Mrs. Blevins--of the fabulous hair--most wonderful kindergarten teacher ever.

Here are the kindergartners lining up in the foyer, getting ready to march. There are four kindergarten classes at the school, with almost 100 graduates this year.

Elaine and I staked out a row of seats, both Darren's and my families arrived, and the graduation was ready to begin. First, four kindergartners came out. Two welcomed us to the graduation, and one led in prayer. Then the last little girl stepped up and said, "Don't go away! We're going to get our friends now!" I have always been known as a big cynic, but ever since I had my girls I am basically just a soggy marshmallow. I started tearing up right away.

The familiar sound of "Pomp & Circumstance" began to play, and all the kindergartners began to march in. I leaned over to my mom and said, "Remember when I graduated from DePaul and there were over 900 other grads? They were playing that song for like, an hour and a half." She just rolled her eyes at me. That graduation is not one of my fondest memories--not the least of which is that the speaker for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (which I was in) was Sister Helen Prejean, while the Law School got Bill Kurtis. Nothing against Sister Helen, but...BILL KURTIS. Not that I'm still bitter or anything.

OK, back to the kindergarten graduation, which thankfully had no speaker at all.

First, they recited the three pledges they say every morning: to the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Then they sang a dear little song in Spanish called, "I've Got Music in My Heart." I can't tell you what it was in Spanish since my five-year-old knows far more of that language than I do. Then they all recited Psalm 100 and sang another song. And then it was time for the diplomas.

I had called my brother earlier that afternoon to give him directions to the church. He asked, "How long is this thing going to be?" "I don't know, probably an hour. There are close to a hundred graduates," I answered. "Well, it's not like they're going to make them individually go and get their diplomas, are they?" he asked. Silly man. You can tell he's not around kids very much.

Not only did each child receive his or her diploma individually, they each stepped up, gave their name, and said what they wanted to be when they grew up. Among the boys there were a lot of future policemen, firemen, and secret agents. One boy who said he wanted to be a plumber drew a lot of cheers. I was very pleased with Daniel who said he wants to be a scientist. Among the girls there were a lot of future teachers, artists, and cheerleaders (as if). There was another cheer for the girl who wanted to be a school principal, a collective "awwww" for the little girl who said she wanted to be a mom, and I clapped extra hard for the two little ones who wanted to be missionaries.

You could tell some of these kids copied from their friends and some kids had been coached by their parents. One little girl said she wanted to become a model and be very rich. One boy raised both his arms and said, "I'd like to thank my parents, the Academy, and God," except he didn't quite get "the Academy" and said, "the economy." Good luck with that. And I thought secretly, "Yeah, in the words of Darren, you will probably rise to mid-level corporate America and be the obnoxious manager that everyone hates."

Here is my girl, who stepped up confidently and said in a voice as clear as a bell, "My name is Lucy and I want to be a cook!" She won't say "chef" because she thinks all chefs are men. That's OK--it works for Rachael Ray now, doesn't it?

After they received their diplomas, they honored each teacher and teacher's assistant with roses and sang a song called "Thanks for the Memories," in sign language. I really teared up then, and Lucy said later that Mrs. Blevins was sitting in the front row, crying. Then they sang an upbeat song called "Ready to Go," the superintendent closed in prayer, and presented the future class of 2021 to us.

Now it was time for some family photos. Here is my family. Let me say a word about them. They are the most wonderful people in the world, but they are maddening at picture time. My dad is always in a big hurry to leave, my brother acts like the concept of a family picture is the most baffling thing in the world, and my sister-in-law and mom--who have absolutely beautiful smiles--refuse to smile their normal smiles or sometimes any smile at all. Are they Victorian?

What is wrong with these people? You would think they were ancient Indians or something, and the camera was trying to steal their soul.

Here are my dear in-laws who drove almost three hours to attend this illustrious event. They act quite normally for the camera.

And here is a picture of my mom, the two girls, and me. It's not a particularly wonderful shot, but throughout the night I kept thinking, "This is probably the last graduation my mom will ever attend," so I cherish it. My mother-in-law hugged my mom and said, "People all over the country have been praying that God would raise you up to be able to be here tonight!" Yup--teared up again.

I just realized while looking through these pictures that we have absolutely none of Darren and Lucy together. He was behind the camera the whole time. Sorry, babe!

Here is my favorite shot--my dear little first-grader-to-be; ready to go!

Congratulations, Lucy! We are so proud of you!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Our Christmas Present

On Saturday, Darren, Lucy, and I headed to Chicago to see our Christmas present from Chuck and Rome--"Mary Poppins," the Broadway show.

Unfortunately, children under the age of 5 were not allowed at the theater (though by the way? We saw all sorts of people violating that rule), so Elaine couldn't go with us. I had however, arranged a fun day for her. Sarah and Lucho and their kids, all of whom Elaine loves so much, graciously offered to take her for the day. Saturday morning I lifted her up on my lap and told her that she would be spending the day with them and that I would give her gift cards for Cold Stone Creamery so she could take them all out for ice cream.

When Lucy came in the room, Elaine burst out, "I'm going to _______'s house and have ice cream AND YOU'RE NOT!" Lucy completely forgot she was going to see "Mary Poppins" and started to cry. Then I had to take her aside and explain that Elaine is too little to do almost all of the fun, exciting things that she gets to do so, while it was unkind of her to say that, we should try to understand that this is a big deal for her. AND BESIDES YOU ARE GOING TO A BROADWAY SHOW AND SHE IS NOT.

We got all that settled and Elaine bundled off, and we set out. We met Chuck and Rome at the theater, and the show started. Now, almost everyone has seen the Disney movie, and I was expecting a recreation of that. I was interested to see how they would do all the magic of the film.

I was fascinated to see almost right away that they were actually not going to recreate the film; instead they culled much of the material from the books. As a child, I checked, rechecked, and rerechecked all of the P.L. Travers' books out of the library, so I was thrilled. Don't get me wrong--I absolutely love the movie, but it is Disneyfied. Julie Andrews is very...sweet in the movie, while the Mary Poppins of the book was much more tart.

In the movie, Mary Poppins pretty much performs all the magic, but the beauty of the books was that magical things happened all around simply by virtue of Mary Poppins being there. Shops appeared that weren't there normally. In fact, in one of my favorite scenes--they did the gingerbread stars from Mrs. Corry's shop that became real stars. On the stage, there were twinkling lights everywhere; then they spread out over the audience and one landed on Lucy's dress! That was a thrill--that she got a star on her.

The show also did the part from the books about the statues in the park coming to life, including Neleus. Keep in mind, these were Greco-Roman statues. That's all I'll say. During intermission, Rome leaned over and said to me, "That statue dancing around was making Chuck nervous." Then Chuck said, "Yeah, was that one of the parts from the book?" I said, "Yes, in the movie during the part where they went into the sidewalk chalk picture, they changed it to animation and they had penguins and the horse race." Chuck answered, "I'm really not in favor of Disney-fying things, but that was a good call on their part. Couldn't that statue guy at least be wearing some sort of fig leaves or toga or something?"

They also included the evil Nanny Andrew who was fantastic--that was one of our favorite bits. That lady had some unbelievable lungs on her. Also, the music from the movie was interwoven thoughout since everybody loves that. They would perform the familiar songs but in scenes that were in the books, plus there were new songs added. Of course they had "Spoonful of Sugar," "Chim-chim-enee," "Supercalifrageliciousexpealidocious" (I'm not even going to bother checking if I've spelled that right--but that number brought the house down). The highlight for me was my personal favorite number, "Step in Time," with all the chimney sweeps on the rooftops of London. Bert (who was phenomenal) not only walked up the (HUGE, TALL) walls of the stage but also danced on the ceiling. The special effects throughout were amazing.

One of the coolest parts of the show to me was the juxtaposition of color. In the movie, everything is sort of brightly colored, Disney-washed. The stage show did a wonderful job of showing the grey, wet, dreary side of London and rather gloomy interior of the Banks' house. Then each time there was a magic scene with Mary Poppins, the sets and costumes were in such bright colors it almost hurt your eyes.

The finale was spectacular. Throughout the show, Mary Poppins had flown (she had left the Banks' and come back--another scene from the books) but only on the stage. When she left the Banks' house for the last time, she opened her umbrella and flew up. Then to everyone's delight, she flew out over the audience on the main floor. Then to exuberant cheering from everyone, she flew up over the audience in the balcony. Lucy was so fun to watch during this part--she was just beside herself.

The show lasted three hours, but it didn't seem like it at all. What an experience. Lucy talked about it the whole way home and this morning too. I wish everyone could go see it--so be on the lookout if it comes to your area! We got back to pick up Elaine around 7. She had had a lovely day and thought she'd gotten the better of the bargain, especially since she had seen Isabella's dance recital, climbed in their treehouse, and gotten to eat at Beef-a-roo.

Everyone had a great day and was happy!

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Belated Birth Announcement

With everything that's been going on around here, I forgot to announce that sometime last Friday or Saturday or maybe Thursday, we're not quite sure, Henry and Margaret's babies were born. We could tell something was different by the proud way Margaret's feathers were fluffed out all of a sudden.

On Sunday morning as we left for church, we all wished Margaret a happy Mother's Day. Doesn't she looked pleased?

We've been watching all week for glimpses of the babies. We could see Margaret shifting uncomfortably. We would all get very excited when we could see a glimpse of a tiny beak or head poking out.

The babies grow extremely quickly because by yesterday we could see this:

Isn't Margaret a wonderful mother? Though sometimes we can't tell if she's feeding, kissing, or sharply reprimanding her children. Probably all three.

Throughout Margaret's nesting time, we were annoyed with Henry. Where was he? We rarely saw him. He was not particularly attentive. Where were Margaret's backrubs? Her late-night ice cream runs? Henry was probably out playing golf with his mourning dove buddies while Margaret sat alone at home.

But yesterday we saw him stop by with some food for the babies. And this morning, he truly redeemed himself. He swooped in and settled on the nest so that Margaret could go out to breakfast with her girlfriends. Look at her, perched on the wire ready to fly off. You can tell she's already singing Aretha Franklin songs she's so happy to get out on her own for a bit. Margaret, you look wonderful. You look like you haven't even had any babies!

Now here's Henry. He's got that panicked-Dad look. What in the world do I do with these kids?

But he settled in nicely. Look how they love their dad. Good job, Henry.

Uh-oh. Margaret has only been gone a few minutes and just look at the state of their nest. How typical.

Then Margaret came back. That really cocks her pistol--she just went out for a little bit, the whole place is trashed, and the babies are still in their pajamas, watching cartoons. Henry just flew off in relief.

The last I saw her, she looked like this: feathers ruffled, the babies back underneath, and a piece of the nest in her mouth, trying to pull things back together again.

Oh, Margaret. We hear you, girl, we hear you. Welcome to motherhood!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I don't think this has EVER happened before

Updated: Sigh. Not so rosy after all. Lucy woke up from her nap and promptly threw up six times in an hour and a half.

It is 12:08 in the afternoon on a cool, rainy, Spring day. Right now, both of my daughters are in their their respective beds, asleep and snoring. How did THAT happen?

What to do with this free time?! So many options.

I think I will READ!

Monday, May 11, 2009

String of Pearls

I saw my mom Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of this weekend. It was so great. On Friday I went by myself, and we tried on clothes in anticipation of what we were going to wear to the Mother's Day lunch at her church on Saturday. It is so wonderful to see my mom be able to try on clothes, just like the old days!

On Saturday, she and Lucy and I went to the lunch together. This is the first year I've brought one of the girls (with the exception of Elaine when she was an infant--and then I just stuck her under the table and she slept through the whole thing). Lucy and I got to my mom's house as she was getting ready and putting her jewelry on. Lucy said, "Oh, I forgot to wear any jewelry today, Manga," so my mom pulled out a tiny ring for her.

"Look," she told Lucy. "Here is a sweet little ring with your great-grandmother's initials on it: AK. You can wear this if you're very careful of it."

"Is it your mom's, Manga?" Lucy asked.

"Well, yes," Mom answered, "she was very much a mom to me, and she is your great-grandma, up in heaven."

The one whom she is talking about is actually my godmother. She died when I was only three years old, and I just have one vague memory of her--she was wearing an apron, and we were all seated in the dining room of her and my grandpa/godfather's house. It was somebody's birthday--maybe Grandpa's--and there were muffins for everyone with a birthday candle in each muffin. I remember being thrilled at having a little candle of my very own to blow out. That is all I remember of her.

That is certainly not all I know of her though. Her name was Arvilla Kirchofer Garner--I thought Arvilla was a beautiful name because it sounded like "vanilla" to me. She was the only child of a well-to-do German family in Chicago. Her father owned a printing business.

She and her mother were terrified of bees. Her dad knew if, when he came from work, his wife and little girl were sitting out on the front porch that there was a bee in the house that he needed to deal with before they would go back in.

Here she is; isn't she cute?

Arvilla grew up to be a very tall and thin and beautiful lady. She loved to play tennis and sing, and her best friend was a missionary. They wrote lots of letters back and forth overseas. She grew up at Moody Church in Chicago, and one Sunday she was supposed to sing in a trio with two of her friends. (If you've not been to Moody Church, it's quite imposing and seats 4,000 people.) The hymn they were to sing was, "I Am a Pilgrim." They were each to sing individually "I am a pil-..." and hold the note until the third girl chimed in, then they would sing the hymn. However, when they got up in front of all the congregation and started with "I am a pil-...." Arvilla got the giggles, the other two followed, and they finally ran off the stage in disgrace (still giggling).

She married my grandpa, Harold, who was from Canada and also an only child. Grandpa was a pastor, and his great joy was taking dying little country churches and bringing them back to life again. They never had any children of their own, and it was a sadness to them though they never really showed it.

Arvilla first was the secretary to Harry Ironside, then worked for Gospel Light Publishing, then became a professor at Moody Bible Institute. It was there that she met my dad. He was one of her students, and he had the audacity to turn in a paper to her written in pencil. She was outraged. However, she had also heard that to earn his tuition money, my dad did painting and wallpapering so she asked if he would come to her house and redo her mother's room (by this time, her mother was widowed and lived with her).

He did, and the rest is pretty much history. To Harold and Arvilla, my dad became their son. It's because of them that my dad moved to Wheaton, where I grew up. When he married my mom, she became their daughter, and my parents' children were without a doubt their only and greatly-prized grandchildren. In 1966, the year my parents got married, Grandma and Grandpa were jointly awarded the Alumni of the Year Award from Moody, the first couple ever to receive it.

Both my parents' house and our house are filled with beautiful things that belonged to my grandparents. Grandma died of cancer in 1972. Grandpa died of a sudden heart attack in 1982. They had a gorgeous, ornate statue in their home that Grandpa told Dad, "When I die, the first thing I want you to grab is that statue." I remember so clearly the night that the Wheaton College student who was boarding with Grandpa called us to say something was wrong. Dad rushed over to his house while we waited at home for him to call and tell us if Grandpa was in the hospital.

Instead, after several hours, we heard the back door open, and there stood Dad in the back hall--tears streaming down his face--holding the statue.

In these last few months that my mom has been sick, she has been talking a lot about Grandma Garner. How she and Grandpa dedicated their lives to serving God. How they loved working with children and students. How they sat around and laughed and laughed all the time because they thought that life devoted to Him was such a blast and a joy.

How when Grandma got sick, my mom was so devastated--she cried and cried and cried--this was her children's only grandma and now she was being taken away. Mom said, "After she died so soon after my sister died, I just didn't think I could pray anymore that someone would be healed from cancer." She talked about what a truly great lady Grandma was and how she faced all of this with grace and strength. What an example she was. My mom talked about her own illness and how she knows that any cancer in the bone will end in such great pain.

"I'm holding on to this verse from the Psalms, though," she said, " 'I will not fear evil tidings. I will remain steadfast. The Lord will uphold me.' "

I thought, as I have often thought, what an awesome heritage of women I have walking before both me and my girls.

While my Grandma Arvilla was in the hospital, dying, she wrote a letter each to my brother and to me, in a shaky hand, on some letterhead from her dear Moody Bible Institute. Mine says, "My darling Alice, I'm here in bed looking at those pretty flowers you sent me. They make me very happy. Thank you so much. I miss seeing you so much. Maybe pretty soon I'll be out of here, and you can come to see me. Don't ever forget that Grandpa and I love you so very much. Do you know what I've been doing today while here? I've prayed especially for you and Chuckie. You're growing up so fast, and we hope you'll always love the Lord Jesus and do what He wants you to do and to be a real worker for Him. Even now you can show other children that you love the Lord Jesus. You'll never forget that we love you, will you? Very, very much love to you. Grandma."

On my wedding day, I had the choice to wear either my mom's pearls or Grandma's pearls. I chose Grandma's because I had some other things of my mom's to wear, and in addition--my mom was there. I wanted Grandma included in the day. I wanted her to know that I've never forgotten her and how much she loved me.

Here she is, on her wedding day:

And here I am, on mine:

Yesterday, on Mother's Day, my mom presented me with a long, thin box.

"Why are you giving me a present, Mom?" I asked. "I give you presents today, not the other way around!"

She just smiled as I opened it and found Grandma's necklace inside. Mom and Dad had had it restrung for me, and Mom wrote a note to me that I will treasure just as much or more than the pearls themselves. I'll be keeping it together with Grandma's long-ago note to me.

During these months, I have carried a sadness in my heart, particularly for Elaine. It hurts me so much to think how my mom absolutely adores her, but that will become a faint and distant shadow for Elaine. She might just have one brief memory, a flicker of candlelight, just as I do of my grandma.

But then I think of how much I truly know Arvilla. My parents have kept her so incredibly alive for me. I know her story. We don't have the same blood flowing through us, but she is my true grandma. My mom is tiny and petite, but I am a tall, lanky stork just as Arvilla was. I'm terrified of bees and tend to laugh uncontrollably at the most inopportune moments. I love china and teacups and beautiful linens like she had all through her house. I've worked in publishing and taught college students and thinking living a life for God is a blast and a joy.

People have come to our house and seen those two wedding pictures--hers and mine--hanging up in the hall and have said, "You look so much like your grandma!" I picture her up in heaven getting a big chuckle out of that. I know when I get there, I'll know her the second I see her.

When my mom was in the hospital recently, she said that her pearls and Grandma's pearls were mine to give to the girls at my discretion. I haven't made my final decision yet, but I think Grandma's will go to Elaine. They'll go to her so that she'll have a piece of our great legacy to hold in her hand...the thread of God's goodness that you can know and love someone dearly though they might only be a faint memory or even though they're someone you've never met on Earth.

And to Grandma--You are gone but never forgotten. You are a beautiful branch that was grafted onto our family tree. Thank you for your courage and grace, even in your darkest hour, and for your beautiful string of pearls. I'll probably give them to my girl who giggles the most. I love you.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Let's All Open Our Books!

Yesterday I went to a meeting of the creative team of the magazine for which I write and edit. It's the second time we've met so far, and I really enjoy it. The magazine (which right now is available only in subscription, but hopefully soon will be on newsstands) is lovely. It's skewed toward age 50+, and our readership is predominantly women (because, let's face it--women read more magazines of any type, period), but we'd like to expand it too.

The gist of the magazine is that it should be fun and inspirational and spark Baby Boomers to live significantly, live their lives to the fullest. That's our basic mission--it's also a Christian magazine, so of course the Christian faith is interwoven throughout.

I will confess something to my blog readers--working on this magazine is fun, but it also stretches me. Honestly? I'm not all that creative. I mean, I love beautiful things, I love the arts, but as far as being creative within myself, not so much. Probably because I'm in way too much of a big hurry all the time. Also, I have sort of a dark side. I got my undergraduate degree in Urban Missions--so you definitely see a lot of dark stuff there--and my graduate degree in Modern British Literature (you see how those two go together? Yeah, me neither.) If you've read a lot of modern British literature and poetry, you probably know it's not too upbeat. I pretty much like books that end, "...and his soul was shattered. Then he died, leaving chaos and devastation in his wake."

I mean, here's an example of a poem I love (by Stevie Smith, 1957)

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him
his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Isn't that GREAT? And don't even get me started on Philip Larkin, poems that I will not post here because this is a family blog.

Anyway, like I was saying, the magazine stretches me, and it's a good thing. My assignment for the new issue is to write the summer fiction piece. Basically, I'm getting paid to read a bunch of books and recommend them. Pinch me, I must be dreaming.

Yesterday at the meeting, the managing editor, Peg, stuffed my book bag full of complimentary copies of books to read. I can choose six books I like (and they can be anything--they don't have to be what she's given me), and write my piece.

Now seeing as this is a Christian magazine, it's Christian fiction. I will tell you--I am notoriously hard on Christian fiction. It's mostly too gimmicky or cringe-worthy or slots neatly into genres I hate (end-of-the-world scenarios! prairie romances! chick lit!) So much of it is derivative and then shoves the Christian faith into it in a really clunky way. Oh, and it's just badly written. So there you go.

I just don't see why Christians have to pump out some inferior product. Also, I love to read books from the point of view of other faiths, so I think Christian books should at least be something that someone who isn't a Christian might actually be interested in picking up.

All that being said, let's see what good Christian fiction books I can find this summer. For the magazine, I'm supposed to give only positive reviews because, you know, we want people to actually read the books. And like I said, fortunately, I get to pick whatever books I want, so I'm only going to pick books I like (though I also have to pick books whose covers coordinate).

Here's one Peg gave me that I read last night:

The Missionary, by William Carmichael & David Lambert, published by Moody Press, March 2009.

Here's the publisher's blurb on the plot:

David Eller is an American missionary in Venezuela, married to missionary nurse Christie. Together they rescue homeless children in Caracas. But for David, that isn’t enough. The supply of homeless children is endless because of massive poverty and the oppressive policies of the Venezuelan government, led by the Hugo Chavez-like Armando Guzman. In a moment of anger, David publicly rails against the government, unaware that someone dangerous might be listening—a revolutionary looking for recruits. David falls into an unimaginable nightmare of espionage, ending in a desperate, life-or-death gamble to flee the country with his wife and son, with all the resources of a corrupt dictatorship at their heels.

This is not normally my type of book, since it's an action-thriller, but I did enjoy it. The characters of David and Christie are well-drawn. They are young missionaries with different reactions to their work. Christie is a nurse who believes that the care of each individual child who crosses her path has meaning and significance. David is a frustrated visionary who sees the streets of Caracas, teeming with children who need help but can't get it. One of his favorite missionary quotes is from C.T. Studd "Some people wish to live within the sound of a chapel bell. I wish to run a mission a yard from the gate of hell."

Unfortunately, David's vision leads him to believe that if the political structure in Venezuela were different, more children could be helped. This is the key piece of interest to me in the book, and makes me proud of Moody for publishing it. Too many Christians believe that morality can be legislated through government reform (and by the way, Moody as an organization has taken a strong stand against this in the past also. God bless the school that D.L. Moody founded. I'm just sayin'. Represent!).

David is presented as well-meaning but naive, and ultimately, very foolish. His seemingly small political actions place him and his family in great danger. Here's where the action heats up, and there are chases and guns and stuff, so if you're into those kinds of things, you'll really like this.

What I liked about this book was that it wasn't just a cheesy, action thriller. One thing I hate about Christian fiction is that obviously it's not going to have profanity, so then the authors substitute "darn" and "crud" etc.--as if Colombian drug runners and CIA agents would actually talk like that. These authors wisely skirted that whole issue by eliminating that entirely--hello, whaddya know, solution to the problem right there. They also had obviously done some comprehensive research on political structure in South America. The violence was realistic but not overly graphic. The writing is taut, and as the reader, I really cared about what happens to this missionary couple. I particularly liked Christie--she is written as a strong woman of faith and principles, and she has an interesting backstory that sheds light on her character.

What I wished the authors had done more of was examine their original premise--that of mixing missionary work and politics. The first half of the book does that, but the second half gives way to the action piece, and the original introspection of the characters is kind of abandoned.

Overall though, I would recommend The Missionary as a good summer read.

So, stay tuned for more books! And if it all gets too upbeat for you, just let me know 'cause have I got some great recommendations for all of you here on the dark side with me, too.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Spring is Springing

This weekend I went to Geneva (again) with my friend Julie. I needed to buy end-of-the-year gifts for Lucy's teachers, and since I found the perfect gifts there last year I thought I'd try again. Fortunately, they had some very similar things as before. I was torn between fun summer ice cream dishes and fun summer cereal dishes (that's what I got last year). Julie, as a former teacher, liked both but voted for the cereal dishes. I would show a picture of them, but one of the great things about Little Traveler is their cute (free) gift wrapping.

After that, we headed to our favorite lunch spot. The day was gorgeous--Geneva is especially beautiful in the spring--and bittersweet for both of us. We are so used to going there with our moms. Our moms, Lois and Barbara, were friends first and introduced Julie and me when we were four years old. We call it "our arranged friendship" and say, "Fortunately, we actually like each other!" We've weathered high school together; visited each other at our colleges; shared an apartment; stood up in each other's weddings; had countless sleepovers, dinners, and lunches together--or just sat in the children's section of Borders, eating truffles. When we sit around and talk for hours, we call it "sit-n-frit," and when we move around and chat, we call it "walk-n-squawk."

In addition, our moms have been taking us to shop and have lunch in Geneva for years. (And Julie's dad says, "I don't believe in Purgatory, but if I did, it would be on Third Street in Geneva.")

A few weeks ago, Julie told me something else we have in common--her mom was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Her surgery is coming up soon. As soon as my mom found out, she was on the phone to her dear friend Barbara, listening and talking, walking through it with her, praying with and for her. And it was good for Julie and me to be able to sit-n-frit over lunch about our moms, our "SSMs" (small, Swiss mothers) as we call them, especially since Geneva will always remind me of both of them.

When I came back home, it seemed like spring had come practically overnight to our own yard. I had to go check out my lilac bushes that Darren and the girls got me for Mother's Day last year. The two purple ones look very healthy but don't have any blooms yet. Here is the white one though...

And here is our apple tree about ready to bloom, along with our new hummingbird feeder.

Our yard is covered with these, which the girls and I have been picking for bouquets around the house (see how hard this awful winter has been on our lawn)...

Our yard is also covered with these...

Indoors, I have a May basket from my neighbor and the makings for a fresh fruit salad...Speaking of May baskets, I had the girls bring one over to my mom on Friday. She was thrilled and said, "I've just been wishing all day that I could have gotten up really early, put together my baskets, and left one for Barbara on her front door like I always used to!"

And here's another little dandelion I found in the yard...

So May, my favorite month of the year, is finally here, and it's already filling up with teas and parties and graduations, including Lucy, who is graduating from kindergarten in less than three weeks.

I'm off to make my fruit salad now and maybe give a taste to Elaine, who just informed me that she is starving and needs a bowl of cereal even though she's had two cartons of yogurt and a handful of Wheat thins because, "You haven't given me any breakfast yet, Mom!"

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Recommendation

I hate reading posts about people being sick, but man. I think I'm getting worse instead of better. I'm guessing it's some sort of sinus infection. My head is pounding, I'm coughing, I'm congested, and then today I woke up with what I'm thinking is pink eye, unless I've inadvertently scratched my cornea again.

So, I spend my days doing most of the stuff I always do, intermittently lying on the couch. Yesterday I put on my pajamas at 5 p.m. and took my laptop to bed and worked there. So...good times.

In the meantime though, I read one of the best books I've read in ages. I loved this book so much that, as my friend Jacquie says, "I want to eat it."

It is called "The Help," and it is the first novel by Kathryn Stockett. I saw it sitting on the "on hold" shelf at the library for someone else, came home, looked it up on amazon to see what it was about, then reserved a copy at the library for myself. I picked it up on Monday, started it yesterday, and finished this morning.

Here's the Washington Post's review of it:

Southern whites' guilt for not expressing gratitude to the black maids who raised them threatens to become a familiar refrain. But don't tell Kathryn Stockett because her first novel is a nuanced variation on the theme that strikes every note with authenticity. In a page-turner that brings new resonance to the moral issues involved, she spins a story of social awakening as seen from both sides of the American racial divide. Newly graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in English but neither an engagement ring nor a steady boyfriend, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan returns to her parents' cotton farm in Jackson. Although it's 1962, during the early years of the civil rights movement, she is largely unaware of the tensions gathering around her town. Skeeter is in some ways an outsider. Her friends, bridge partners and fellow members of the Junior League are married. Most subscribe to the racist attitudes of the era, mistreating and despising the black maids whom they count on to raise their children. Skeeter is not racist, but she is naive and unwittingly patronizing. When her best friend makes a political issue of not allowing the "help" to use the toilets in their employers' houses, she decides to write a book in which the community's maids -- their names disguised -- talk about their experiences. Fear of discovery and retribution at first keep the maids from complying, but a stalwart woman named Aibileen, who has raised and nurtured 17 white children, and her friend Minny, who keeps losing jobs because she talks back when insulted and abused, sign on with Skeeter's risky project, and eventually 10 others follow. Aibileen and Minny share the narration with Skeeter, and one of Stockett's accomplishments is reproducing African American vernacular and racy humor without resorting to stilted dialogue. She unsparingly delineates the conditions of black servitude a century after the Civil War. The murders of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. are seen through African American eyes, but go largely unobserved by the white community. Meanwhile, a room "full of cake-eating, Tab-drinking, cigarette-smoking women" pretentiously plan a fundraiser for the "Poor Starving Children of Africa." In general, Stockett doesn't sledgehammer her ironies, though she skirts caricature with a "white trash" woman who has married into an old Jackson family. Yet even this character is portrayed with the compassion and humor that keep the novel levitating above its serious theme.

What that review doesn't convey is how many times I laughed out loud, the times I had to wipe away the tears, and the soul of these women that I will be carrying around with me for awhile. It's one of those books where, once you finish, you don't want to read anything else for awhile because you don't want anybody new intruding on your thoughts.

I saw one reviewer compare Stockett to Harper Lee, and...hold the phone because never in my life have I said this...that comparison is completely justified.

This is a beautiful book and one I wish everyone would take the time to read. Not to mention, there are so many fantastic food descriptions in there that if I read one more, I was going to have to go out to my kitchen, sinus infection and all, and whip up a caramel cake.

Go forth and read!